High humidity, sudden monsoon storms and plenty of long straights - these are but some of the things F1 drivers can expect at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

High humidity, sudden monsoon storms and plenty of long straights - these are but some of the things F1 drivers can expect at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

The modern, purpose-built Sepang circuit is close to the city of Kuala Lumpur and is considered to have some of the best facilities on the current F1 calendar. The circuit was built in 1999 and hosted its first grand prix in October that year. Like season opener Albert Park before it, Sepang is one of the longer tracks (5,5 kilometres) and was designed by renowned German architect Hermann Tilke.

Eddie Irvine won the first Malaysian Grand Prix for Ferrari. Michael Schumacher was victorious for the Scuderia in 2000 and 2001 and his brother Ralf won last year. Ralf and team-mate Juan-Pablo Montoya scored the first one-two finish for Williams BMW.

What the drivers think of Sepang

Drivers say the Sepang circuit is challenging and technical in nature, with 15 corners and eight straights where speeds can reach over 300 km/h. There are few gradients and more overtaking opportunities than on most tracks. The start/finish straight is over 900m long and the first corner is the fastest on the layout.

Cars will be set up for medium downforce and a balance between drag and top speed for the long straights. Tyre degradation is medium and the track is more abrasive than Melbourne but the changeable weather conditions can cause the most problems - tyre choice is often a crucial factor.

Hot and humid and prone to unexpected tropical monsoons, the Malaysian Grand Prix is a challenging race where drivers’ physical fitness and resistance of dehydration will have a big impact on the outcome of the race.

What what we can expect from the teams

For the second race in 2003 it's by no means predictable as to whom the winner will be. Ferrari's solitary point finish (Schumacher’s fourth place) in the Australian Grand Prix was certainly not expected and the McLaren Mercedes duo of Kimi Raikkonen and David Coulthard was highly competitive.

Ferrari will be wanting to redeem itself after Melbourne, as will Williams, who could have won at Albert Park if not for Montoya’s spin while the Colombian was leading the race.

Earlier this week, CARtoday.com quoted Schumacher as saying that the Ferrari F-2002 was “still absolutely competitive, both in terms of reliability and performance. Some people reckoned we could have already introduced the F-2003 GA in Sepang, but within the team this has never even been a subject for discussion. Furthermore, I feel it will be beneficial, for a race run in such extreme conditions, to use a car we know well."

“I am convinced I have a good chance of winning in Malaysia. It has been something of a tradition there and I will be trying to extend it," the German added. His team-mate Rubens Barrichello will also be keen to jump start his championship challenge by finishing in the points - and preferably on the podium - in Malaysia on Sunday.

It is difficult to predict whether Williams-BMW could be in a position to defend the victory that Ralf Schumacher scored at the event last year, Montoya said on Tuesday.

CARtoday.com on Wednesday quoted the Colombian as saying although Williams BMW was historically strong around Sepang, the new FW25 chassis might not continue that trend.

"It is pretty difficult to say how we will perform in Malaysia," said Montoya. "We might be really good or we might be 10th! Barcelona is the only fast track we tested on over the winter and we haven't been very quick there. On the other hand, we have historically always been really quick in Malaysia."

McLaren-Mercedes will be very keen to keep its advantage and tyres will critical at Sepang. Michelin proved to have the edge in the hotter conditions last year.

Meanwhile, Toyota driver Olivier Panis was confident of a good showing in Malaysia after the team failed to live up to many people’s expectations at Albert Park. "We proved in Melbourne that the Toyota is a quick car. All we need to do now is find the reliability that we showed in pre-season testing and then we can get a good result before too long.

"During the test (in Jerez, Spain last week) we tried various new parts on the car, including some improvements to our engine braking.

“The average speed at Sepang is high and the only track on which we have tested with the TF103 during the winter that is remotely similar is Barcelona. We were quick around Barcelona and that is another reason for us to be confident for the Malaysian Grand Prix,” he added.

Renault could spring a surprise as both Jarno Trulli and Fernando Alonso were competitive in Australia and the team is pushing its engine department to improve top end power.

Jaguar Racing has traced the problem that led to Mark Webber’s retirement from the Australian Grand Prix to a driveshaft fault, rather than the suspension failure that was initially suspected.

”We go to Malaysia optimistic given the encouraging pace we demonstrated, “ managing director David Pitchforth said. "Melbourne clearly showed us that the Jaguar R4 is a very responsive and well-balanced package. The nature of the circuit layout combined with the heat should bode well for tyre performance but until we take to the track for our two-hour testing session on Friday, we cannot be sure."

Meanwhile, the performance of the Geoffrey Willis-designed BAR Honda 005 in Melbourne drew praise from an unlikely source - Jordan director of race and test engineering Gary Anderson - this week.

"We noticed how well the car uses its tyres during testing, when there never seemed to be any sign of the performance drop-off over a race distance that other Bridgestone users were experiencing. It's also very quick in the quick corners,” Anderson said.

"That shows the car is very well balanced, and overall that comes down to the aerodynamics. It's a very good little car by the look of it," he added.

Minardi is unlikely to be able to pull off its qualifying tactic from Melbourne, as the FIA intends to shut that avenue down.